In 2015, New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld published an explosive story about Amazon’s hard-charging culture. As a former Amazon executive, I had some insight into how the organization functioned; as I told the writers, “It’s the greatest place I hate to work.”
There is no doubt that Amazon is a demanding place to work and it’s certainly not for everyone but there’s one aspect of the culture that deserves to be replicated elsewhere: an insistence on candor and truth-seeking.
Think about how many large companies operate. Bureaucracy and office politics tend to rule the day. Discussions are often not forthright. People smile and nod their heads yes even when they disagree. In these types of work environments, civility and “getting along” is more important than being right or getting to clarity.
But consensus poses dangers for businesses, especially those trying to be innovative. If people aren’t having hard, honest, forthright conversations then it’s unlikely that they’re bringing forth truly innovative ideas. Those ideas tend to be counter-intuitive, and may initially seem stupid, impossible, or counterproductive and in a workplace that prizes agreement and civility, they are likely to feel challenging.
Jeff Bezos worked in the early stages of Amazon to avoid this culture, specifically with the leadership principle “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit.” The leadership principle’s description includes “They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.” Bezos recognized that changing the status quo and innovating on a systematic basis is not easy, is not intuitive and demands excellence in so many ways that “getting along” needs to take a back seat. To counter social cohesion, he encouraged the management perspective that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace. Harmony, in fact, can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas and execution.
Inside Amazon I have heard the technique of getting to “disagree and commit,” to be called “truth seeking.” Instead of “getting along,” getting to the right answer or insight is the top priority. Bezos believes this is a competitive advantage. Truth-seeking companies will win against companies where people compromise for the sake of civility.
This doesn’t mean that being respectful is not important. Being nice and getting along are necessary and valued; after all, you can’t achieve the right results if you leave nothing but burned bridges behind you. It’s just that being polite is not enough, and it shouldn’t be the top priority.
If you work in an organization that currently overvalues consensus, how do you become a more truth-seeking organization?
In my experience at Amazon and from observations of the companies and executives I advise, I see that leaders need to set the tone from the top, essentially demonstrating and giving permission for others to replicate what they see at most senior levels of the organization.
First, practice having deliberate honest conversations with your team and catch moments when honest conversations are not taking place or where you are accepting the easy answer instead of the real truth. Be purposeful in communicating that all parties demand rigorous thought and execution. And while everyone must be respectful of others, the business also needs demanding conversations. Honest conversations first look most critically at your area of responsibility. At Amazon, we called this being “vocally self critical” where you first looked at how your process, your systems and your teams played a role.
Second, slow down some of your conversations and meetings. Don’t rush through decisions, which can often encourage people to agree rather than debate. Instead make clear the type of conversation you are having and the principles or approach you’ll use to make a decision. Are we having a design meeting; are we doing a “correction of error” discussion; are we making a decision about how to structure the organization? Setting this up front helps the team get better at understanding why we are making a decision in a certain manner. Use your judgement on which conversations to slow down. Decisions that are high stake and may establish a precedent or impact other decisions typically need a slower process. But look for seemingly straightforward conversations that may have broader implications. For example, if you’re discussing “How did this error exist for the past two weeks without us knowing?” then the priority is fixing the error. But you may need to slow down to discuss how you put monitoring and controls in place for the future. This takes a leader to step up in the meeting, challenge the conversation to dig deeper and get to the essential truth and insight. It might sound something like “Wait, we can’t rush through this. Even though that situation happened, that does not explain why our system did not deal with this situation correctly. We have to create more durable and resilient capabilities. So how do we create a capability that reacts appropriately when the environment is failing?”
Third, hold the other product, service or business leaders accountable with metrics, service-level agreements (SLAs), and deep root-cause conversations. Root-cause conversations often take considerable effort and time but understanding where an issue started is often the only way to avoid it in the future or to improve your processes. Try using an approach where you ask a question like “Why did this happen?” or “Why did I allow this to affect my business?” five times to get past superficial answers and get to the real root cause.
These types of conversations feature data, facts, an orientation to critical thinking and being self-critical. Always trying to tie back to the customer and why the topic matters to the customer is present whenever appropriate. Guess what matters much less? What isn’t featured in these conversations? Titles – titles don’t matter when we are seeking root cause and insights. Seniority – seniority doesn’t matter unless it brings along wisdom and insights (these do matter!).
When you do this type of analysis with cross-functional teams it creates an atmosphere where people feel comfortable being honest about where mistakes were made. Metrics, monitoring and instrumentation of all key capabilities, at a detailed level provides the critical insights to enable root-cause analysis. When issues do arise, not only is the data and tools in place, but the team will already have a habit of introspection and being vocally self-critical.
Almost every company I work with is looking to challenge the status quo and become more agile in the face of competition, as Amazon has done. To succeed, leaders need to create the habit of truth seeking and setting the tone at the top that the company will win by doing the right thing, having honest conversations, leading with customer obsession and data, seeking perfection through data, and ignoring job titles, while still treating each other with respect. Yep, changing the world, at scale time and time again, is a really hard thing to do.